SAVING CLIMATE CHANGELANDIA: In the Nation's laboratory' for Land Loss, Louisiana's Fishermen Are Innovating Their Way to Survival.

AuthorWebb-Hehn, Katherine

By the time Nicky Alfonso calls me on a Thursday in October, he's been on the water fishing for two days by himself. He's settling in for an evening on his boat: a shower, some dinner, maybe a little shrimping by moonlight.

Alfonso's family has been on Delacroix Island in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, for generations. He started fishing with his daddy when he was a kid, and today, he's known by locals for his encyclopedic knowledge of the waterways--Lake Borgne, Chandeleur Sound, Christmas Camp Lake. He's the kind of guy who says "erl" for "oil," who calls me "ma'am," even though at age fifty-three, he could be my dad.

It'd be easy to write a story about how Alfonso thinks this will be the last generation of fishermen in the wetlands; how the land where his grandfather once lived six months out of the year to trap for fur is now a lake; how, he says, "The land is what holds the nutrients for the seafood, and when the land is gone, the seafood is going to be gone."

The thing is, you've seen stories about guys like Alfonso before: fast-talking Cajun fishermen whose daddies, great-granddaddies, and great-great-great-granddaddies were commercial shrimpers, crabbers, and oyster trappers. You've seen them in media tragedies, cast in the part of those who stand to lose the most--their homes and livelihoods--as rampant sea level rise continues to change the region's ecological makeup.

In St. Bernard, locals refer to these kinds of stories as sagas in "Climate Changelandia."

The script goes like this: Louisiana is losing a football field of land every one hundred minutes, which is trouble, because 7.5 percent (or three million acres) of the lower forty-eight's forty million acres of coastal wetlands are in Louisiana. So, we're all losing the natural barriers of protection during hurricanes, which is trouble, because residents are already bracing for the next big storm. And much of the region's infrastructure, as scientists regularly point out, hasn't been adequately rebuilt or reinforced since Hurricane Katrina. That's trouble too, because all those chemical and petroleum production facilities lining the area's waterways are in danger of flooding.

When journalists go on the hunt for fishermen like Alfonso, here's what we inevitably see: an afternoon on an old-timer's boat, all sunburn and saltwater. Then cut to him sitting in his favorite dive bar, the camera zooming in on a toothy smile as he denies climate science, saying there's nothing he could do or not do to make any difference. And all that trouble seems to land on his shoulders.

The implication is that he's a fool, and his individual lack of political will to vote for environmental regulation is what's failing us all, and not, say, the leaders of industry with lobbying power who've long been warned about their potentially catastrophic impact. In contrast, we rarely see stories where educated city-dwellers are asked if they'd give up driving their car to lower emissions of particulate matter.

As a Southerner, I'm used to this kind of scapegoating, the intellectual schoolyard beating of working-class or rural folks. Similar stories about oil workers...

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